My great-grandmother, Jeannette, was born in 1902 and her life would span most of the 20th century. She would see advancements in her lifetime that were unheard of at the time of her birth.
Still her life, like any, would not always be easy. Tragically, she would lose her mother to tuberculosis as a child. We have a photo of young Jeannette and her siblings visiting their mother on the lawn of the sanitarium.
Gram, probably 8 years old at the time, looks wise beyond her years. She is hovering, protectively, over her younger siblings.
The young ones appear blurred because the photography of the era required subjects to sit perfectly still for an extended length of time. Only Jeannette, already a responsible mother hen, could hold the pose long enough to impress her image upon the film.
She was, for her time, a thoroughly modern girl. She was college-educated in an era when many women were not and became a teacher in the 1920s.
When I hear someone lament the state of education and today’s undisciplined youth, I recall a story she once told of a student who threatened her with a knife. Apparently, the good old days could be terrible too.
She raised her family during the Great Depression and survived the result of two World Wars. She spent more than 20 years of her life as a widow. Amazingly, she would live to see the disease that stole her mother all but eradicated in her lifetime. I wish I had thought to ask her how bittersweet that was.
Ways of a 20th century lady
She valued education — and eloquence — and pressed a book into my hands before I could read. From her I learned of (but sadly never mastered) the ways of a 20th century lady, from the beauty of fine handiwork and sewing to the fine art of making do.
I still cannot look at a mesh onion bag and not immediately think “pot scrubber.” For years I saved bacon grease with no earthly idea why. I definitely can’t throw away a button. I might need it someday.
She dressed up for a trip to the market and wore gowns to evening events. Due to her, I still harbor the secret belief that every true lady should have at least one string of pearls and an ample supply of clean white gloves.
She lived a full life and died in her 80s, just shortly after my 18th birthday. I still miss her to this day. She never met my children, but my daughter carries her name. Beyond that, I sometimes think I still see Gram in a certain tilt of my daughter’s head or in her love of books.
I wonder what my great-grandmother would think of her great-great granddaughter, born in a time so different from her own. Of this 21st century girl who has no memory of the 20th century she too was — just barely — born in.
In a rare, candid high school photo, my great-grandmother looks positively scandalous as she straddles a balance beam (wearing the socially required ankle length “gym skirt” and bloomers of the era). Could that student of the class of 1920 ever have imagined her own great-great granddaughter who strides across the soccer field in athletic shorts and a T-shirt that boldly declares, “you wish you could run like this girl?”
Could she have imagined a world where a little girl could say, idly, “I might want to be president someday” and nobody scoffed — or laughed?
Old enough now
My daughter is old enough now to ask about her namesake from time to time. Who was this “Jeannette” who unwittingly saddled her with an old-fashioned middle name, a tiny porcelain tea set and a breathtaking collection of early 20th century books?
How do you encompass 80-some years of a life into something that a child can understand? It is, of course, impossible.
To my daughter I say, “She is the butterscotch cookie we make at Christmas and the way you love to read. She was the 8-year-old with crushingly adult responsibilities, and the 80-year-old who would drop everything to whip up a dress for a doll — or fantastic story — on a moment’s notice. She was a woman who voted, drove and found a career when many were desperate to find work. She rolled bandages for the war, made-do in the Depression and learned to live both with — and without — a mate. Most importantly, she is the one who came before so that you could come after.”
If by some chance I could introduce them to each other — great-great grandmother to granddaughter — I think I could say only this:
She was — and is — really something.
She was — and is — everything.
She was — and is — in you.
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